Zaid Ashkanani: At the front of the grid in Gulf’s push for a future Formula One driver

In the background of the glitz and glamour, the speed and noise of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the first green shoots of the Arabian Peninsula’s grand incursion into big-time single-seat racing are sprouting out in the support paddock.

Zaid Ashkanani has been competing in the GP3 series at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Courtesy: GP3 Series Media Services
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ABU DHABI // In the background of the glamour, speed and noise of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the first shoots of a Khaleeji push into elite, single-seat racing are sprouting in the support paddock.

Kuwaiti driver Zaid Ashkanani is competing this weekend in the GP3 series. This is notable in that Ashkanani, 21, is the first driver from the Gulf to compete in the junior series support races that feature on a grand prix weekend.

He began his racing career three years ago on something of a whim, after frequently accompanying his father to open-track days at Sakhir Circuit in Bahrain. But he didn’t try his hand behind the wheel in a formal sense until he was 16. By 18, he leapt into the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East on fatherly encouragement, with little karting or otherwise significant motorsport background.

“He took his car and would drive,” at the open track sessions in Bahrain, said Ashkanani. “One day he said to me, when I was 16 years old and I didn’t have a license, ‘You will drive today.’ And from then I just love to be in the car.

He said he asked his father if he could make at attempt at a professional racing career. “He said to me, ‘The Porsche, it’s a really high level.’ And I said, ‘I shouldn’t be racing.’ He told me, ‘No, no, you should try,’ and from the first day it was quite fun.”

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Ashkanani’s first race was in Bahrain. He qualified fourth and finished fifth, igniting a career that has taken him to trailblazing in single-seat racing at this level.

His first full season built on that promising start. In the 2012/13 GT3 Cup Challenge season he reached a podium and finished sixth overall.

“I felt like I had some potential to keep racing,” he said of that effort.

In 2013/14, he scored three wins and four poles en route to claiming the series championship. Last season, he again consistently outpaced his peers, finishing second with 10 podiums and two victories.

That form has led to his GP3 incursion with Spanish marque Campos Racing. His first season has been a consistent one — finishing every race, including on Saturday the first of two GP3 races this weekend. He nearly cracked the top 10 on a few occasions.

The transition to single-seat racing has been an on-the-fly learning process.

“It’s a completely different world,” Ashkanani said. “In the Porsche it’s not quite physically as hard as the single-seater.

“The GP3, you can brake really late, you can gain more speed, you have the down-force. It’s completely different.

“It isn’t easy, but I’m always trying to find anything, always trying to develop myself still. Now each race I try to just get a bit better, get a bit more experience and get to be a better race driver.

“And still I think I’m not … I’m missing a bit, you know? But we’re really trying our best, trying to put everything right just to score a good result.”

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Ashkanani’s career might never have began if not for Formula One’s expansion into this region. He started things at the circuit in Bahrain, and noted the development in the UAE as well.

He does believe a Gulf driver will start on the F1 grid before long.

“I think in the future they will be, because now like in the UAE they have started the academy for karting to develop the drivers when they are young,” he said, referring to the Daman Speed Academy, “and I think they will be better also in Bahrain.”

He acknowledges the region has some distance to travel to advance in single-seat racing, and to develop the same kind of tradition that already exists in rallying.

“Maybe you have 2-3 championships in rally, so we need more drivers, more championships to get the level also high,” Ashkanani said.

He would, of course, love to be the first Gulf native on a Formula One grid. He is already as close as any before him.

“Every young driver, he wants to be in Formula One, but it’s not a big deal,” Ashkanani said. “There’s another series. There’s driving for Porsche or Ferrari. We try to reach, but if not we see, go another direction.

“I love what I’m doing so I’m just going to continue with this.

“I know it’s not an easy thing, especially because I didn’t start really young, but I got the chance to do it and I want to do it now.”

If he doesn’t blaze that particular trail, he is hopeful someone will come along behind him and reach such a height.

Asked if he thought a Gulf driver could reach Formula One sometime in the next 10 years, he said, “Yeah, I think so.”